We have explored the relationship between conformational energetics and the protonation state of the Schiff base in retinal, the covalently bound ligand responsible for activating the G protein-coupled receptor rhodopsin, using quantum chemical calculations. Guided by experimental structural determinations and large-scale molecular simulations on this system, we examined rotation about each bond in the retinal polyene chain, for both the protonated and deprotonated states that represent the dark and photoactivated states, respectively. Particular attention was paid to the torsional degrees of freedom that determine the shape of the molecule, and hence its interactions with the protein binding pocket. While most torsional degrees of freedom in retinal are characterized by large energetic barriers that minimize structural fluctuations under physiological temperatures, the C6–C7 dihedral defining the relative orientation of the β-ionone ring to the polyene chain has both modest barrier heights and a torsional energy surface that changes dramatically with protonation of the Schiff base. This surprising coupling between conformational degrees of freedom and protonation state is further quantified by calculations of the pKa as a function of the C6–C7 dihedral angle. Notably, pKa shifts of greater than two units arise from torsional fluctuations observed in molecular dynamics simulations of the full ligand-protein-membrane system. It follows that fluctuations in the protonation state of the Schiff base occur prior to forming the activated MII state. These new results shed light on important mechanistic aspects of retinal conformational changes that are involved in the activation of rhodopsin in the visual process.